Village people: Michael Gambon in The Casual Vacancy.
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From Pagford to the Punjab: Sunday night rivals The Casual Vacancy and Indian Summers both fall short

J K Rowling adaptation The Casual Vacancy and Channel 4's Indian Summers lack something for our critic.

The Casual Vacancy
BBC1

Indian Summers
Channel 4
 

I can’t tell if this adaptation of J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (Sundays, 9pm) is an improvement on the novel – I haven’t read it. If it is better, as some suggest, I can only imagine how clunky the original must be. Halfway through the first episode and already worn out by all the unsubtle ways in which its writer, Sarah Phelps, was trying to signal that the Cotswold village of Pagford has an underbelly darker even than Evgeny Lebedev’s beard, I began to wonder why the director hadn’t just hired a biplane. It could have trailed a banner above Pagford’s honey-coloured roofs: “WARNING – THIS VILLAGE IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS!” Not only would this have saved a lot of time, money and acting talent; it would also have been a good deal less patronising to us, the poor, feeble, simple-minded viewers.

Pagford is a Midsomer Murders kind of place. The sun is always shining, the better that people might drive their vintage cars with the top down, and every five seconds another Great British Character Actor strides into view. Michael Gambon, Julia McKenzie, Julian Wadham, Simon McBurney: the full repertory company is present, plus the obligatory blazers, wigs and bow ties. Turn a corner, though, and you’ll find yourself in Shameless. Here is a shop selling naughty lingerie; here, a thug pointlessly destroying a schoolboy’s bicycle; here, a weeping junkie returning home after a night in the cells. And who’s this? It’s Samantha Mollison (Keeley Hawes), the proprietor of the aforementioned lingerie store. What’s she doing? Hmm. In her kitchen, she’s shoving her considerable breasts in the face of her boring solicitor husband, Miles (Rufus Jones). “Go on!” she growls. “Grab a handful!” And then something much ruder that I will leave to your imagination for now.

The plot of The Casual Vacancy turns on the struggle for the future of Sweetlove House, a drop-in centre that caters for the needs of the residents of Pagford’s Chatsworth – sorry, I mean Fields – council estate. Samantha’s social-climbing parents-in-law, Howard (Gambon) and Shirley (McKenzie), want it to become a luxury spa: they would rather the poor stayed out of sight. Alas, there is opposition on the parish council. Previously, this was led by the do-gooding Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) but now poor Bazza is dead and the race is on to fill his seat. Who will succeed him? The hapless Miles? (At least council meetings will afford him a brief respite from Samantha’s breasts.) The dastardly Simon Price? Or the local head teacher, Colin Wall? All we know for sure at this point is that Shirley’s quilted Barbour is going to see a lot of action in the coming days, that Samantha will likely have to deploy the odd thong and that Michael Gambon will continue to shout his lines tonelessly, in the manner of a Speak & Spell machine that finds itself unaccountably stuck in a long and possibly endless run of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever.

The trailer for Indian Summers.

The Casual Vacancy is up on Sunday nights against Indian Summers, Channel 4’s expensive new series about the Raj. As awful as the former is, it’s not going to be too triumphant a slap-down. Indian Summers is beautifully acted and directed and looks intensely lush (it’s set in Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas); you could file your nails on the gently shining cheekbones of Henry Lloyd-Hughes, who plays the gorgeous, pouting Ralph Whelan, private secretary to the viceroy. Still, there’s something missing. The script by Paul Rutman (Vera, Agatha Christie’s Marple) doesn’t convince. It feels ersatz, a quality I attribute to its desperate desire to succeed as an epic and to its fiercely held but ultimately misguided conviction that it is telling us something thrillingly new about the social class of those who ruled pre-independence India (the inclusion of non-posh types is hardly a revelation; Ronald Merrick, played by Tim Pigott-Smith in The Jewel in the Crown in 1984, was not from a privileged background, either, and this was the source of his sadistic antagonism towards Hari Kumar).

Still, rather amazingly, there are another nine episodes to go. It could yet bloom. I’ll report back later, pink gin in hand. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Why a Keeping Up with the Kardashians cartoon would make genuinely brilliant TV

The Kardashians are their own greatest satirists.

You’ve seen Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kourtney and Kim Take Kyoto, and Kylie and Kendall Klarify Kommunications Kontracts, but the latest Kardashian show might take a step away from reality. Yes, Kartoon Kardashians could be on the way. According to TMZ, an animated cartoon is the next Kardashian television property we can expect: the gossip website reports that Kris Jenner saw Harvey Weinstein’s L.A. production company earlier this month for a pitch meeting.

It’s easy to imagine the dramas the animated counterparts of the Kardashians might have: arguments over who gets the last clear plastic salad bowl? Moral dilemmas over whether or not to wear something other than Balenciaga to a high profile fashion event? Outrage over the perceived betrayals committed by their artisanal baker?

If this gives you déjà vu, it might be because of a video that went viral over a year ago made using The Sims: a blisteringly accurate parody of Keeping Up with the Kardashians that sees the three sisters have a melodramatic argument about soda.

It’s hysterical because it clings onto the characteristics of the show: scenes opening with utter banalities, sudden dramatic music coinciding with close-ups of each family member’s expressions, a bizarre number of shots of people who aren’t speaking, present tense confessionals, Kim’s ability to do an emotional 0-60, and Kourtney’s monotonous delivery.

But if the Kardashians, both as a reality TV show and celebrity figures, are ripe for ridicule, no one is more aware of it than the family themselves. They’ve shared teasing memes and posted their own self-referential jokes on their social channels, while Kim’s Kimoji app turned mocking viral pictures into self-depreciating in-jokes for her fans. And the show itself has a level of self-awareness often misinterpreted as earnestness - how else could this moment of pure cinema have made it to screen?

The Kardashians are their own greatest satirists, and they’ve perfected the art of making fun of themselves before anyone else can. So there’s a good chance that this new cartoon won’t be a million miles away from “Soda Drama”. It might even be brilliant.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.